Zeno of Citium, the Hellenistic philosopher who founded the Stoic school at the turn of the third century BCE, once had this advice to give to a garrulous young man: “the reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is so that we might listen more and talk less.” The more we speak, Zeno was saying, the more self-absorbed and foolish we become; in learning to listen, we temper our own egos and attune ourselves to the truths of the world around us.
This piece of wisdom from a 2,300-year-old philosophy was a part of the marketer and best-selling author Ryan Holiday’s reflection on stillness and silence on the October 4 edition of his Daily Stoic podcast, a daily affirmational that brings listeners “a meditation inspired by the ancient Stoics illustrated with stories from history, current events, and literature to help you be better at what you do.” In citing Zeno, Holiday’s point was that while our highly mediated culture often rewards loudness, extroversion, and “hot takes,” we might do better to listen, and learn from others, rather than simply talk over them.
Over the past decade, Stoicism, which teaches that self-discipline, moderation, and emotional equanimity are key to overcoming hardship and living a good life, has had something of a revival as a self-help paradigm – and Holiday has been one of its most energetic evangelists. Articles in Vice, the New York Times, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the Guardian, Forbes, Wired, and Sports Illustrated have all taken note of his influence among Silicon Valley tech workers, corporate executives, professional athletes, military personnel, and celebrities to whom he markets the philosophy as a “life-hack”; his six best-selling books on the subject, meanwhile, have positioned him as perhaps the most commercially successful author in a mushrooming genre of Stoic literature; and The Daily Stoic’s A-level guest list, which has included Malcom Gladwell, Camilla Cabello, Matthew McConaughey, and Charlamagne Tha God, has established Stoicism’s cultural cachet as a practical guide for living, and positioned Holiday as its authoritative interpreter.
Among the lessons Holiday draws from Stoicism, the practice of stillness (as his 2019 book puts it) is key: a way of quieting the mind, of “hear[ing] only what needs to be heard,” and really listening to the truth of the world in order to achieve the kind of tranquility (what the Greeks called apatheia) that will help us “think well, work well, and be well.”
With this emphasis on stillness, silence, and listening, it would seem quite appropriate that Holiday would turn to the aural medium of podcasting to proclaim the ancient wisdoms of Zeno, Cleanthes, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Indeed, for the Stoics, listening was a foundational skill through which one cultivated the habits of discipline, self-control, and self-reflection that are the heart of the Stoic way of life (askesis); for it is in quieting ourselves and listening that we begin to open ourselves to the teachings of the masters and think about their application in our own lives.
And Holiday is hardly the only Stoic podcaster. As I write this, a simple search on Stitcher yields over 30 podcasts with “Stoicism” in their titles or descriptions, many of which have been updated in the past month (December, 2021), including the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci’s Stoic Meditations, Stoicism Discovery, Stoicism on Fire, The Sunday Stoic, The Stoic Handbook, The Walled Garden, Stoic Coffee Break, and Stoic Solutions.
Elsewhere, Stoicism has been promoted by self-improvement podcasters like the tech investor and lifestyle guru Tim Ferriss,and retired Navy SEAL and leadership coach Jocko Willink; and – perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the ancient Stoics were white men who emphasized values like rationality and self-mastery, which are typically coded as male – it has been advocated as a tactic for modern living by masculinity podcasters like Brett McKay and Ryan Michler.
Navigating this space can often feel like a small world (or, perhaps a promotional circuit): Holiday has been a guest on The Tim Ferriss Show, The Art of Manliness, and Order of Man, and has hosted Willink, McKay, and Ferriss on The Daily Stoic.
A full exploration of this network is outside my scope here. For now, I will consider the ways in which podcasting is particularly well-suited to Stoic askesis; and specifically, how the very act of listening – on our commutes, on long drives, at the gym, on hikes, and in moments of quiet meditation – constitutes what Michel Foucault (who himself drew upon Stoic texts in his later work on ethics) called a technology of the self: those techniques, “which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.”
Part of a larger project investigating the historical emergence of discourses of sex and sexuality in Western culture, Foucault in his later writings and lectures turned his attention away from the normative and disciplinary systems of subjectivation that had previously concerned him, and toward the study of ethical modalities by which individuals actively fashioned their own subjectivity. Focusing particularly on the ethical practices of the ancient world, he discovered a more autonomous framework for individual conduct, one that centered on self-imposed standards and daily habits rather than a prescribed moral code.
This precept of the “care of the self” (epimeleia heatou), Foucault maintained, could be traced from Alcibiades to the Imperial period, and had impelled individual Greeks and Romans (the free white men, at least) to embark upon their own stylized projects of self-transformation.
Among the practices that interested Foucault – and indeed, the one he understood to be essential to the “subjectivation of true discourse” – was the act of listening. In the first hour of his March 3, 1982 lecture at the Collège de France (published in English in The Hermeneutics of the Subject), for example, Foucault explained that listening is
the first move in as[k]esis … since listening, in a culture which you know was fundamentally oral, is what enables us to take in the logos, to take in what is said that is true. However, if conducted properly, listening also makes it possible for the individual to be convinced of the truth spoken to him, of the truth he encounters in the logos. And, finally, listening is the first moment of the process by which the truth which has been heard, listened to, and properly taken in, sinks into the subject so to speak, becomes embedded in him and begins to become suus (to become his own) and thus forms the matrix for ethos (p. 332).
This emphasis on listening, Foucault noted, is evident as far back as the Pythagoreans, who required initiates to spend five years in silence so as to be able to learn the community’s exercises, practices, and philosophical precepts. The themes of silence and listening were further developed in the culture dominated by Stoicism, Foucault noted, and emerged as a “new pedagogical game” that contrasted with the earlier dialogic model. Now, the master spoke, and the student listened.
But the nature of audition could be somewhat ambiguous for the ancients, Foucault explained, in that it was a passive (pathetikos) activity, yet it is the primary sense through which we receive the logos, the rational substance that the Stoics believed to govern the universe. In his treatise On Listening, for instance, Plutarch (46 CE – c. 116CE) wrote that it was imperative for young men cultivate the art of listening because they must learn to listen to the logos throughout adulthood, and so must learn to distinguish truth from the artifices of flattery or rhetoric. One must listen to the words of the master attentively, so that the logos might penetrate the soul. “The man who has the habit of listening with restraint and respect,” Plutarch wrote, “takes in and masters a useful discourse, and more readily sees through and detects a useless or false one, showing himself thus to be a lover of truth and not a lover of disputation” (On Listening, IV).
Perhaps the most striking of the texts Foucault discussed, however (see The Hermeneutics of the Subject, pp. 343-344), is Philo of Alexandria’s (20 BCE – c. 50 CE) description of the practices of the Therapeutae, a closed community of ascetics who renounced their earthly possessions in order to pursue “perfect happiness,” and the salvation of their soul (De Vita Contemplativa, §12). In his text, Philo takes specific note of the group’s elaborate banquet rituals, during which an elder comes to the fore and gives a discourse on philosophical doctrine or on sacred scripture (“teaching very slowly, lingering and emphasizing with repetitions, engraving the thoughts on the souls” [§76]). During these talks, the audience remained silent and motionless, adopting a precisely prescribed posture intended to fix their attention on the speaker, so that the discourse “does not stay on the tips of the ears, but comes through the hearing to the soul and there remains securely (§31).” In these feasts of silence, mastery of the body is the foundation of the care of the soul.
Though modern Stoic podcasting does not demand nearly this level of physical discipline of its listeners, we are nevertheless encouraged to incorporate podcasting into a daily ritual of silence and reflection – a new, digital feast of silence. As we listen through our headphones, in our cars, or in some other quiet personal space, we are joined in intimate connection with our hosts, who guide us in our contemplation of timeless Stoic wisdoms, engraving these thoughts in our minds so that we might have them ready at hand in order, as Holiday often says, to make them the principle of our actions.
It is this possibility of principled living that is perhaps at the heart of Stoicism’s twenty-first century appeal. As Elizabeth J. Peterson has written, in our age of seemingly perpetual crisis, Stoicism’s resurgence is undoubtedly due to its reputation as a practical guide for surviving difficult times. “Between President Trump, Brexit, the Middle East and the domestic issues in virtually every country,” she writes, “it’s not difficult to see why many people, across the world, need a source of clarity, calm, and fortitude.” (And that was before the pandemic, which occasioned a spate of articles explaining how Stoicism might help us endure a moment of profound uncertainty).
But the headlines aren’t the only source of our anxieties; we have plenty of it in our own lives. At a time of deepening economic precarity, in which we are routinely urged to become self-reliant, self-enterprising subjects in order to maximize our value in the marketplace, Stoicism offers a ready-made coping mechanism with a pedigree of centuries: at once a framework for cultivating emotional resilience, and a self-help paradigm for transforming ourselves into more disciplined, effective, and successful individuals.
When co-opted by late capitalist culture, when marketed as a “life-hack” and configured as an ethics of personal success, then, Stoic principles quite easily align with neoliberal imperatives that we endlessly labor on ourselves in order to better compete in an agonistic struggle for personal fulfillment and economic security. From this perspective, even the advice that we embrace stillness becomes a way of momentarily refreshing ourselves, only to return to work to “persevere” and “succeed.”
One of the most trenchant critiques of Stoicism is that by advising us not to concern ourselves with that which we cannot control (see Epictetus, The Discourses, 2.5.4-5), it is fundamentally a philosophy for living in the world as it exists, and not for challenging it (indeed, Stoicism’s popularity among the Roman elite indicates something of its congeniality with the established order). And while, as Sara Ahmed has written, “neoliberalism sweeps up too much when all forms of self-care become symptoms of neoliberalism,” it is nevertheless worth considering how an ostensibly self-directed ascetic practice is complicit in more hegemonic (neoliberal, patriarchal, and misogynistic) templates of subjectivity.
Featured Image: “Marcus Aurelius Headphone Stand!” by JM3is3D @Etsy. Image used for purposes of critique.
Andrew J. Salvati is an adjunct professor in the Media and Communications program at Drew University, where he teaches courses on podcasting and television studies. His research interests include media and cultural memory, television history, and mediated masculinity. He is the co-founder and occasional co-host of Inside the Box: The TV History Podcast, and Drew Archives in 10.
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It’s an all too familiar movie trope. A bug hidden in a flower jar. A figure in shadows crouched listening at a door. The tape recording that no one knew existed, revealed at the most decisive of moments. Even the abrupt disconnection of a phone call manages to arouse the suspicion that we are never as alone as we may think. And although surveillance derives its meaning the latin “vigilare” (to watch) and French “sur-“ (over), its deep connotations of listening have all but obliterated that distinction.
Moving on from cybernetic games to modes of surveillance that work through composition and patterns. Here, Robin James challenges us to consider the unfamiliar resonances produced by our IP addresses, search histories, credit trails, and Facebook posts. How does the NSA transform our data footprints into the sweet, sweet, music of surveillance? Shhhhhhhh! Let’s listen in. . . -AT
Kate Crawford has argued that there’s a “big metaphor gap in how we describe algorithmic filtering.” Specifically, its “emergent qualities” are particularly difficult to capture. This process, algorithmic dataveillance, finds and tracks dynamic patterns of relationships amongst otherwise unrelated material. I think that acoustics can fill the metaphor gap Crawford identifies. Because of its focus on identifying emergent patterns within a structure of data, rather than its cause or source, algorithmic dataveillance isn’t panoptic, but acousmatic. Algorithmic dataveillance is acousmatic because it does not observe identifiable subjects, but ambient data environments, and it “listens” for harmonics to emerge as variously-combined data points fall into and out of phase/statistical correlation.
Dataveillance defines the form of surveillance that saturates our consumer information society. As this promotional Intel video explains, big data transcends the limits of human perception and cognition – it sees connections we cannot. And, as is the case with all superpowers, this is both a blessing and a curse. Although I appreciate emails from my local supermarket that remind me when my favorite bottle of wine is on sale, data profiling can have much more drastic and far-reaching effects. As Frank Pasquale has argued, big data can determine access to important resources like jobs and housing, often in ways that reinforce and deepen social inequities. Dataveillance is an increasingly prominent and powerful tool that determines many of our social relationships.
The term dataveillance was coined in 1988 by Roger Clarke, and refers to “the systematic use of personal data systems in the investigation or monitoring of the actions or communications of one or more persons.” In this context, the person is the object of surveillance and data is the medium through which that surveillance occurs. Writing 20 years later, Michael Zimmer identifies a phase-shift in dataveillance that coincides with the increased popularity and dominance of “user-generated and user-driven Web technologies” (2008). These technologies, found today in big social media, “represent a new and powerful ‘infrastructure of dataveillance,’ which brings about a new kind of panoptic gaze of both users’ online and even their offline activities” (Zimmer 2007). Metadataveillance and algorithmic filtering, however, are not variations on panopticism, but practices modeled—both historically/technologically and metaphorically—on acoustics.
In 2013, Edward Snowden’s infamous leaks revealed the nuts and bolts of the National Security Administration’s massive dataveillance program. They were collecting data records that, according to the Washington Post, included “e-mails, attachments, address books, calendars, files stored in the cloud, text or audio or video chats and ‘metadata’ that identify the locations, devices used and other information about a target.” The most enduringly controversial aspect of NSA dataveillance programs has been the bulk collection of Americans’ data and metadata—in other words, the “big data”-veillance programs.
Instead of intercepting only the communications of known suspects, this big dataveillance collects everything from everyone and mines that data for patterns of suspicious behavior; patterns that are consistent with what algorithms have identified as, say, “terrorism.” As Cory Doctorow writes in BoingBoing, “Since the start of the Snowden story in 2013, the NSA has stressed that while it may intercept nearly every Internet user’s communications, it only ‘targets’ a small fraction of those, whose traffic patterns reveal some basis for suspicion.” “Suspicion,” here, is an emergent property of the dataset, a pattern or signal that becomes legible when you filter communication (meta)data through algorithms designed to hear that signal amidst all the noise.
Hearing a signal from amidst the noise, however, is not sufficient to consider surveillance acousmatic. “Panoptic” modes of listening and hearing, though epitomized by the universal and internalized gaze of the guards in the tower, might also be understood as the universal and internalized ear of the confessor. This is the ear that, for example, listens for conformity between bodily and vocal gender presentation. It is also the ear of audio scrobbling, which, as Calum Marsh has argued, is a confessional, panoptic music listening practice.
Therefore, when President Obama argued that “nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” he was correct. But only insofar as nobody (human or AI) is “listening” in the panoptic sense. The NSA does not listen for the “confessions” of already-identified subjects. For example, this court order to Verizon doesn’t demand recordings of the audio content of the calls, just the metadata. Again, the Washington Post explains:
The data doesn’t include the speech in a phone call or words in an email, but includes almost everything else, including the model of the phone and the “to” and “from” lines in emails. By tracing metadata, investigators can pinpoint a suspect’s location to specific floors of buildings. They can electronically map a person’s contacts, and their contacts’ contacts.
NSA dataveillance listens acousmatically because it hears the patterns of relationships that emerge from various combinations of data—e.g., which people talk and/or meet where and with what regularity. Instead of listening to identifiable subjects, the NSA identifies and tracks emergent properties that are statistically similar to already-identified patterns of “suspicious” behavior. Legally, the NSA is not required to identify a specific subject to surveil; instead they listen for patterns in the ambience. This type of observation is “acousmatic” in the sound studies sense because the sounds/patterns don’t come from one identifiable cause; they are the emergent properties of an aggregate.
Acousmatic listening is a particularly appropriate metaphor for NSA-style dataveillance because the emergent properties (or patterns) of metadata are comparable to harmonics or partials of sound, the resonant frequencies that emerge from a specific combination of primary tones and overtones. If data is like a sound’s primary tone, metadata is its overtones. When two or more tones sound simultaneously, harmonics emerge whhen overtones vibrate with and against one another. In Western music theory, something sounds dissonant and/or out of tune when the harmonics don’t vibrate synchronously or proportionally. Similarly, tones that are perfectly in tune sometimes create a consonant harmonic. The NSA is listening for harmonics. They seek metadata that statistically correlates to a pattern (such as “terrorism”), or is suspiciously out of correlation with a pattern (such as US “citizenship”). Instead of listening to identifiable sources of data, the NSA listens for correlations among data.
Both panopticism and acousmaticism are technologies that incite behavior and compel people to act in certain ways. However, they both use different methods, which, in turn, incite different behavioral outcomes. Panopticism maximizes efficiency and productivity by compelling conformity to a standard or norm. According to Michel Foucault, the outcome of panoptic surveillance is a society where everyone synchs to an “obligatory rhythm imposed from the outside” (151-2), such as the rhythmic divisions of the clock (150). In other words, panopticism transforms people into interchangeable cogs in an industrial machine. Methodologically, panopticism demands self-monitoring. Foucault emphasizes that panopticism functions most efficiently when the gaze is internalized, when one “assumes responsibility for the constraints of power” and “makes them play…upon himself” (202). Panopticism requires individuals to synchronize themselves with established compulsory patterns.
Acousmaticism, on the other hand, aims for dynamic attunement between subjects and institutions, an attunement that is monitored and maintained by a third party (in this example, the algorithm). For example, Facebook’s News Feed algorithm facilitates the mutual adaptation of norms to subjects and subjects to norms. Facebook doesn’t care what you like; instead it seeks to transform your online behavior into a form of efficient digital labor. In order to do this, Facebook must adjust, in part, to you. Methodologically, this dynamic attunement is not a practice of internalization, but unlike Foucault’s panopticon, big dataveillance leverages outsourcing and distribution. There is so much data that no one individual—indeed, no one computer—can process it efficiently and intelligibly. The work of dataveillance is distributed across populations, networks, and institutions, and the surveilled “subject” emerges from that work (for example, Rob Horning’s concept of the “data self”). Acousmaticism tunes into the rhythmic patterns that synch up with and amplify its cycles of social, political, and economic reproduction.
Unlike panopticism, which uses disciplinary techniques to eliminate noise, acousmaticism uses biopolitical techniques to allow profitable signals to emerge as clearly and frictionlessly as possible amid all the noise (for more on the relation between sound and biopolitics, see my previous SO! essay). Acousmaticism and panopticism are analytically discrete, yet applied in concert. For example, certain tiers of the North Carolina state employee’s health plan require so-called “obese” and tobacco-using members to commit to weight-loss and smoking-cessation programs. If these members are to remain eligible for their selected level of coverage, they must track and report their program-related activities (such as exercise). People who exhibit patterns of behavior that are statistically risky and unprofitable for the insurance company are subject to extra layers of surveillance and discipline. Here, acousmatic techniques regulate the distribution and intensity of panoptic surveillance. To use Nathan Jurgenson’s turn of phrase, acousmaticism determines “for whom” the panoptic gaze matters. To be clear, acousmaticism does not replace panopticism; my claim is more modest. Acousmaticism is an accurate and productive metaphor for theorizing both the aims and methods of big dataveillance, which is, itself, one instrument in today’s broader surveillance ensemble.
Featured image “Big Brother 13/365” by Dennis Skley CC BY-ND.
Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism will be published by Zer0 books this fall, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.
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